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Online court records and prejudice.

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Chris Vallance | 10:46 UK time, Tuesday, 23 September 2008

oldbailey.jpgJack Straw wants to put court records up online. He told the Labour Party conference,"I'm going to open up the justice system through the power of the internet, with online court records so anyone can see for themselves what happened when someone appears in the dock."

Perhaps the Justice Secretary was inspired by the Old Bailey Online. For example, there might be fewer fake £1 coins in circulation if the punishment was, as in 1777:

Elizabeth Parker for coining, to be drawn upon a hurdle

The Old Bailey Online also reveals that, even in 1717, publishing court procedings could be a contentious activity.

James Read, Nath Mist , and John Applebee , Printers of the Weekly Journals, were summon'd by the Court, and reprimanded for presuming to print Abstracts of the Proceedings of the Court at the Sessions-House in the Old Bayley, and told, that if they did the like for the future, they should for such Contempt of the Court be proceeded against according to Law.

While the printed word has long been a problem for courts, the advent of broadcasting another, the internet poses new challenges. Speaking to Radio 4's Law in Action in February, the former Lord Chancellor, Lord Falconer argued that articles relating to high-profile court cases should be removed from online news archives because of the risk of prejudicing trials.

Of course one of the prejudicial things one might read in such online archives would be details of the accused previous convictions. Which brings us back to Jack Straw's proposal to reveal online, "what happened when someone appears in the dock". Would these records similarly present a risk of prejudice? If you have experience of the judicial system or expertise in this area we'd be interested in hearing your thoughts on this subject.

We've been gathering responses from the legal profession. In the player below you can hear Rory talk to Peter Lodder QC Chair of the Criminal Bar Association, and Ian Kelcey Chair of the Law Society Criminal Law Committee. Both are concerned about the risk of prejudice.

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In the programme (and podcast) you'll hear what Home Office minister Maria Eagle has to say (in essence they'll address these concerns as they proceed with the consultative process), but we thought it would be interesting to take a slightly wider view and look at how society may need to change in response to the wealth of data that like it or not is now available online. Charles Arthur of the Free Our Data Campaign thinks that lawyers need to "Get with the programme"

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